This week we were all agog over a concern based in Leicester, England, and owned by King Power, which despite the name is not a Captain Planet villain. King Power fielded a team of professional football players, and over the course of several months that team lost less often than nineteen other teams. This has been widely hailed as the greatest accomplishment in sports history.
(Quick aside - In fairness, there's an article about Leicester City and their actual fans that is well worth reading. However, the reaction to their title, especially in America, is as shallow as Barbie's hot tub.)
Why, one might ask, is King Power's achievement greater than Al Bundy's four touchdown performance for Polk High in the Chicago city championship game of 1966? Because people thought that King Power was extraordinarily unlikely to win the English title. Sports bookmakers found so few people willing to put money on such a notion that they established odds of 5,000 to 1.
This, however, was not a particularly insightful year for the British sports book. The team that seems likely to finish second started the season at anywhere from 80 to 150-1. It might bear noting that sports gambling is not a monolith, and it's not impossible to find firms who offered more down to earth odds on King Power last summer. But still, even 2,000-1 odds are pretty long. It just helps to keep in mind that bookmakers are not talent scouts, and do not measure anything other than the wisdom of the betting crowd. So King Mob was wrong about King Power.
You would imagine that making odds as distant from reality as an Oliver Stone movie would have affected these businesses in some discernible way. I will keep you posted as to the bankruptcies spreading across the English-speaking betting world.
In any case, what makes King Power's achievement the greatest ever? Was King Power's team somehow unusually poorly situated to win a title? Were the players King Power hired unusually untalented or badly paid? Or, perhaps, is this a uniquely European/footballing story made utterly fascinating by its exotic, mystical allure to stone-headed Americans?
The answers are, in reverse order: Oh, for God's sake; no, no, and it wasn't.
Some of this is because of the lamentably short attention span we have as sports fans. If Atletico beats Real in the UEFA intramural tournament final in June, people will just as sincerely write that their achievement is unique and extraordinary. ("Slightly Unusual Thing" tends to get fewer clicks than "Extinction Level Event!")
It might be because a team in such a tiny, remote, distant and unpopular market had never achieved this type of glory before. That will come of interest to the folks in Green Bay, Wisconsin. In any case, Leicester is the eleventh largest city in England, and their stadium is, according to that Library of Alexandria we know as Wikipedia, the twentieth biggest in the English professional divisions. Leicester is larger than, to pick a few examples not remotely at random, Derby, Nottingham and Newcastle, and is twice the size of Blackburn. Potatoes of modest size indeed compared to London, but small catchment areas hosting championship teams isn't science fiction.
Perhaps it was the amazing ability to bounce back that sets King Power apart from all previous achievements. But newly promoted teams have won the English championship before...and King Power's team was not newly promoted. If we're going by standings, then the 1991 World Series has it all over the 2016 Premiership title. The more prosaic reality is, modern player movement in professional sports greatly increases the potential of turning around bad teams, and it shouldn't be particularly surprising when it happens.
Ah, but compared to more favored English teams, King Power exploited its employees brutally. This chart would seem to bear that out - King Power's salaries were a non-lofty seventeenth out of twenty.
But this also isn't the first time that a badly-paid team has defeated players more well-off. America now groans under the dictatorship of the Kansas City Royals, who currently boast the 15th highest payroll in baseball. After two consecutive pennants, and a championship. If Leicester City remains around 17th place after this year, well, they're in for a treat in the Champions League, aren't they?
Cursory - and I mean cursory - research shows the Florida Marlins and San Antonio Spurs won their titles with the twentieth highest payrolls in their seasons.
If you want to argue that the scale of difference between the salaries King Power paid against their rivals means their glory was greater, may I re-introduce you to the 2004 European Cup winners. I'm not even sure Greek players are paid in actual currency. I kid. If that doesn't convince you, well, the 1980 US Olympic hockey team doesn't need more publicity, but the fact remains that paid professionals were beaten by amateurs.
So...congratulations, Leicester City. Great upset. Why are people losing their minds over it?
Well, much like with the Bible, people are cherrypicking the actual words in order to push their own beliefs. I'd hate to put words into people's mouths, however vastly more talented I would be at it. So I'll let the Soccernomics guy once again try to express himself as best he can, loath as I am to inflict you with him:
It would be a detestable cheap shot to remind readers that this is the same person who put his name on a 2009 book subtitled "Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey--and Even Iraq--Are Destined to Become the Kings of the World's Most Popular Sport." So he missed the rise of the Islamic State. Mistakes were made. What can you do.
Well, one of the things we can do is look at data. Given as little as three different results in the entire 2014-2015 season, Leicester City would have finished 18th, and not 14th. That would have sent them down a division - and they would have been ineligible to win the Premiership this year.
Leicester City was not established by King Power, but has been in business for 132 years. This is their first title. The Kansas City Royals have won two titles in less than fifty years. Maybe Leicester City has historically been incompetently run? Or perhaps Leicester City was obliged to spend 63 seasons banned from competing for the First Division or Premiership title, simply because of the previous season's results.
And if you still believe previous season's results should have a bearing on the next season, well, may I direct you to your newly crowned Premiership winners.
Szymanski also makes the mistake of, if I may use one of my favorite metaphors, treating a photograph like a motion picture. Leicester's achievement is by any rational standard less impressive than Nottingham Forest's two European titles. The structure that allegedly allowed Leicester the chance to compete for a national title - with a market and team that would hardly stand out in a North American league - has sent Forest down divisions for years at a time. If and when they return, they too will be installed as thousands-to-one underdogs to actually win the title.
King Power's title has attracted so much attention because England has imposed a structure that turns the out of the ordinary into a five thousand to one chance. Of course the Leicester City story of a rise from the third division to winning the first can't be replicated in the United States - no one in North America is so stupid and misguided as to try to sell such a thing. The San Antonio Spurs are allowed to compete on an equal footing. They are not caught in a crab bucket/playing Snakes and Ladders (choose your preferred metaphor).
Leicester City fans supported their team under this unfair system, just as San Antonio Spurs fans would if the NBA cursed them with promotion and relegation. Turns out soccer is popular in England and basketball is popular here. It might be a tad more difficult to establish a new soccer team in, to pick an example again not by chance, San Antonio, and market it to fans with the slogan that maybe once in five thousand years they might win the championship.
And, again, if you have a substandard, zero-sum structure like promotion and relegation, every Leicester comes at the price of an Aston Villa. Perhaps you feel that Aston Villa's fans deserve relegation because they didn't cheer hard enough. It still might be a difficult to sell American soccer owners on the idea that the most popular team in the second largest city in the nation should be sent down a division because of one season of lousy results.
Leicester City's achievement was wonderful. So was escaping from East Berlin, but no one said "Communism makes this kind of exciting, heartwarming story possible!"
(EDIT - maybe linking Wright Thompson's article would be considerate. Also, thanks to Barroldinho on Twitter, a reminder that playing the lottery is not a retirement plan.)
(Also, I have cleverly put in typos and grammatical errors so I would seem more down-to-earth and relatable. Can you spot them all?)